We’ve all heard the phrase “it’s a dog-eat–dog world”, but it’s likely that most people don’t take that literally and consider dogs to be cannibals. But some may wonder how common dog cannibalism really is, particularly with respect to newborn puppies. Do dogs eat their young?
Dogs may sometimes engage in cannibalism and on rare occasions will eat their own babies. The reasons for this can be due to improper hormonal functions, inexperience, and the result of evolutionary pressure. Dogs aren’t generally a cannibalistic species.
We’ll look at the reasons behind dog cannibalism and the eating of a litter by parents. Some of these reasons may seem counterintuitive, but all are based on commonly-accepted principles arising out of evolutionary biology.
Do Dogs Eat Other Dogs?
Dogs have been shown to eat other dogs under a variety of circumstances, but this is an uncommon occurrence. It’s important to draw a distinction between intentional or conscious cannibalism and the unfortunate death of puppies that can sometimes happen.
Puppies are defenseless at a young age as well as being vulnerable to harm and disease. It is a fact of life that some puppies won’t make it to maturity, even with the full help from their parent.
It’s important to consider the history of dogs in order to appreciate where this behavior comes from. Thinking about what pressures and environments led to modern dog behavior can shed light on the reasons for this behavior and understand it better.
It’s also the case that specific medical conditions can contribute to incidents of cannibalism and filial cannibalism — the eating of one’s offspring.
Evolutionary Past and Tradeoffs
Food Requirements of Dogs
Dogs have their genetic lineage from wolves as they share a common evolutionary past. As genes create the brains that both dogs and wolves share, it can be expected that instincts and impulses coming from these brains are still a big determinant of their behavior.
The natural state of the living world is not one of farms and abundant food, so it’s impossible for them to tell what their future may hold. To be unsure of where your next meal is coming from means you need to constantly be on the lookout for food.
Mammals have large energy requirements. This is because maintaining homeostasis is crucial to survival of the organism. It takes energy to power the muscles, and the body’s cells need to stay within a specific temperature to operate.
Warm-blooded animals create heat by the metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates and fats in the liver. This process creates heat, which is passed onto the blood. Dogs need a constant supply of food to act as the fuel source for the heating mechanism.
This means that dogs’ own cells are urging them to feed on anything available.
While pack animals like wolves and dogs are more efficient at hunting, the spoils also have to be shared. Everyone has to fight over the remains to get something to eat.
While domestication can soften this instinct, it is such an important trait that it can’t be easily done away with. Dogs can’t understand the concept of food that never runs out, so they aren’t going to understand that you will be constantly providing dog food.
Why Dogs May Eat Their Young
Fundamentally, there is a strong moral condemnation around eating babies and most organisms lack the ability to perform moral reasoning.
But eating one’s offspring is also bad for the overall health of a line of descent. Cannibalism also tends to harm the chances of a species survival. so both of these behaviors are unlikely to be widespread in a species.
This is particularly the case when thinking about animals like mammals that only produce a few young or a small litter per year.
A triggering of this instinct is more likely to happen in specific scenarios that touch on the dogs’ base instincts concerning fight or flight decisions, birth and other survival-related traits.
The other side to raising young is that while a dog may only be capable of producing a relatively small litter, the amount of care needed per puppy is huge.
This then breeds an instinct to remove all those extra mouths that a dog must feed if she has a huge amount of puppies. Natural selection will select for behaviors that enable dogs to reproduce.
This means that although a dog has already given birth, if they become unable to look after their litter, this is an evolutionary dead end for all those genes. So there has to be an additional facet to a dog’s behavior to counteract the possibility of overbreeding.
In the harsh world outside, the realities of life can be brutal. Limited food is not the only scarcity. A parent of puppies has to look after not only their litter, but themselves too. A large amount of puppies doesn’t give a dog much time to feed or care for themselves.
If the puppies are sick or showing signs of weakness at an early age, it may even be beneficial for a dog to kill its weaker offspring in order to give the resources and time to the better candidates for long-term survival.
Puppies as Prey
Weak offspring are more likely to be the target of predators, and so unfortunately removing these puppies could give the rest of the dogs a better chance of avoiding attacks by other creatures.
Unfortunately, the profile of puppies makes them appear as prey for a dog. Young dog mothers are very inexperienced, so much so that it is generally ill-advised to let a dog become pregnant once they hit puberty and have their first heat.
A puppy will be small, moving quickly and making high-pitched noises, appearing as prey. An inexperienced mother might accidentally attack them due to stress and acting on instinct.
Finally, there are several medical reasons that can turn a mother against her puppies. Any disorders with milk production will cause big issues with raising healthy, happy puppies. Some conditions even make lactation painful, causing a mother dog to avoid feeding her puppies.
Modern Day Dog Cannibalism
The triggers behind dog cannibalism are often related to the removal of protective measures.
The instinct to avoid eating one’s own young cannot be based on verbal communication when considering animals don’t use words in the same way as humans communicate. You can’t have dogs showing identification cards or asking whose baby it is.
So animals instead have a complex system of identifying their young based on hormones. These hormones are spread around the mother’s body upon the birth of their offspring.
An interesting side effect of this system is observed through the process of c-sections. Some dog breeds have been artificially selected for wanted traits in such an unnatural direction that they can no longer give birth unless it is delivered via a c-section.
As the puppy never goes through the birth process, these hormones are not released. The mother therefore doesn’t have the chemical messages telling her that the puppies in front of her are her own.
Their instincts take over and they kill the puppy due to instincts such as protecting her other puppies, for food or for other survival-based reasons.
Dogs are not a cannibalistic species, but various circumstances can lead them to eat their young on rare occasions. When they do eat their young, it’s usually because the puppy is sick or compromised, and the mother’s resources are better spent on healthier members of the litter.